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Expert, advise thyself

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I enjoy writing about feeding my family here on my blog, but what you may not know is that it’s actually one of my areas of professional expertise. For almost 20 years, my specialty as a dietitian has been the art and science of feeding young kids. For the last 10, I’ve been a nutrition advisor for Happy Family, and in this role I’ve answered scores of parent questions and presented on the topic many, many times.

What really cements my know-how, however, is the picky eating laboratory that I run right here in my home with my own 3 kids.

By most standards, my kids are good eaters, but they’re still normal kids. They prefer the same junky foods that other kids like. They turn up their noses at healthy foods all the time. They sometimes refuse to eat what I’ve served. They whine and fuss and push me to my limits around the table every day.

The irony of it all is sometimes laughable. For instance, last month Happy Family hosted a Twitter chat about picky eating, featuring yours truly as their expert. For 30 minutes I confidently doled out sage advice, answering moms’ questions and suggesting solutions for common concerns.

A few hours later I was standing in my kitchen, plating up the chicken gyros I’d made for dinner, listening to a very angry 4yo yelling from under the kitchen table that he would not, in fact, be eating chicken. Because he HATES chicken. Instead, he wailed over and over, I had to make him spaghetti and meatballs. He refused to give up. With my own picky eating advice still lingering in the air from that afternoon’s chat, it was like the universe was testing me: OK, expert… how do you handle this situation?

Usually, when faced with challenges like this one, I do what I know is best; but let’s be honest, sometimes I do not. I take the path of least resistance because I’m only human and these kids can break you down! I’m pleased to report that I did manage to get the situation under control that night by taking my own advice, which I share with you here:

1. I stayed calm. I did not raise my voice. I said I know how much he likes spaghetti and meatballs, but tonight’s dinner is chicken, and please come up and sit at the table. This of course made him even more angry and resolute. (Though at least I was setting a good example with my tone.) So, I moved on to #2…

2. I did not call attention to his negative behaviors. I ignored him a bit to see if he would fizzle out after he realized that he wasn’t getting the reaction from me that he wanted. I served the other two kids, made small talk. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, he did stop yelling.

3. I did not give in. He didn’t know it, but I have a stash of meatballs in the freezer and it would have been very easy for me to heat them up. But of course this is a short-term solution that does nothing for the long-term goal, which is to have a kid who is not so picky. Giving in to their demands by being a short-order cook just reinforces their love of their favorite foods and their unwillingness to try different things. It also tells them that you don’t actually expect them to eat like everyone else in the family. So although it was tempting after a long day, I did not make him meatballs.

4. I chose my battles. I don’t make separate meals for picky kids. He had to select from the options already before him on the table. I was not budging on that point. But sometimes you can only fight one battle at a time. So… I did not punish him for yelling at me even though I don’t find it acceptable. And I didn’t punish him for staying under the table after I had asked him to come out. And when he finally came out from under the table, seemingly willing to take a plate of the dinner I had made, and defiantly said to me “I’m NOT sitting at the table today. I’m sitting in my tent.” I let my we-eat-dinner-sitting-at-the-table standard go out the window just this once and said “you got it!”

The little guy sat in his play tent and ate a few bites of pita, a bunch of tomatoes and cucumbers, and eventually, when he was very calm I told him that his brother and sister really enjoyed the chicken and I would like him to try a bite. To my surprise, not only did he try a few bites, but he emerged from his tent a few minutes later and told me that it was the “yummiest chicken he ever saw.” 4 year olds have no shame.

The thing about dealing with picky eating is that it’s daunting and frustrating, but it’s rarely a lost cause. There are loads of strategies you can try and you can find the ones that work for your child and for your family dynamics. I’ve been testing many of these strategies here at Camp Sunnyside and over the years I’ve shared some tips on Happy Family’s website – you can find them here if you want to read more.

Stay strong, moms and dads. Don’t let those little mac-and-cheese lovers get you down. 🙂

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